Sunday, 13 September 2015

Panama City, Panama - 13/06/15

Edit: I'm obviously posting this super late (we've been in Panama for 3 months now!) But it took us that long to recover, get ourselves sorted, fix up the boat and go through all the random pictures we've taken. We're scared that the big camera will get stolen if we take it out (there's a lot of bad areas in Panama city), so I've only got happy snaps from the phone and a few sneaky gopro shots. We're pretty much organised now though, so I'll upload all the other blog posts from our time here shortly.

Well, we made it! I guess there wasn't ever really any question about whether we would, just when. And the 'when' nearly killed us. But it's over now, and we're tucked away in a nice little anchorage next to the Panama Canal. It wasn't nice for long though.

Coming into Panama

We were exhausted after the passage, as was to be expected. So we checked in, got everything sorted, went for a bit of a wander in search of food and quickly passed out. Then we woke up the next day and started on the clean up. It was a lovely sunny day, but when I popped my head out to look around there was a wall of dark clouds sweeping across the canal side of the anchorage. I yelled out 'Hey Garth, you might want to check this out!' He loves both clouds and weather. His reply was 'In a minute,' so I ran up on deck and started gathering the things we'd laid out to dry. Maybe a minute after I'd first noticed them I looked again and the clouds were rushing through the sky towards us, getting darker and darker. And moving faster and faster.

It was almost comical watching the other boats in the anchorage. One by one people started running out and securing everything, like ants running around on top of an ant hill just before it starts raining. Nobody was messing around. I pulled down the shade cloth that I'd just secured in place and Garth arrived upstairs just as the clouds that were coming from the right of us met up with the clouds that had been on our left, turning the entire sky a forboding shade of black. He was not impressed, and yelled a few expletives before joining all the other ants out on deck. He let out more anchor chain. He picked up a few stray things. Then the both of us sat in the cockpit and waited along with everybody else. I looked around at all the other boats and every single one of them had people sitting in their cockpits, staring up at the sky. Just waiting for it to turn nasty.

They didn't have to wait long. First the wind started. It was just a light breeze and then it quickly escalated into gale force winds. The waves started rolling in and we were being tossed around yet again. Everybody else seemed more worried than us though... I couldn't help but think that it was more comfortable here in our rocky anchorage in the middle of a storm than it had been during 90% of our two month passage. At least we were attached to the ground! Nobody else seemed to share my optimistic view of the situation. They all seemed very distressed and the ants were all at a loss for what to do. I looked over at the guy on the boat next to me as our boats were tipping over from one side to the other. I shrugged with a laugh and he gave me a helpless shrug back. We just had to wait. I put my swimsuit on and sat in the cockpit under the blackened sky and watched everybody else hiding under their biminis. The wind quickly got stronger and the anchorage became a chaotic mess. Things were flying off boats, dinghies were flipping over, windgen's were wizzing through the air and our solar panel flipped up again and broke the tip off one of our windgen blades. You'd think we would have fixed it after last time that happened...

The sad looking guy on the boat next to us got into trouble when his dinghy flipped over. He and his wife were balancing on the back of the boat trying to right it again, but the heavy outboard was too far away for them to reach down and pick it up out of the water. Garth sprung into action and roared off (with our 2hp engine...) to help out. He gathered the oars and cushions that had escaped and were floating randomly around in the water, then helped them get the dinghy back up again. He also had to chase down our big fish bin that had flown off the deck in a particularly energetic gust. Everything was a mess. Then somebody called up on the radio looking for the owner of a little boat next to the sea wall, which was dragging it's anchor in the strong winds and slowly heading back towards the rocks. It was going to be destroyed. The radio started buzzing as everybody offered their 2 cents. The owner was a local man and he was doing work on a catamaran nearby, but nobody could trace him down at that exact moment. So while people were offering suggestions and freaking out, Garth ran up to our bow and dug out the spare anchor. By the time somebody suggested they find another anchor to pull the little boat away from the rocks, Garth was already loading it into the dinghy. It was starting to rain by then but he zipped off again, this time towards the boat where there were already a few other brave souls with faster motors clambering aboard and digging out ropes to tow it with. The situation was potentially very dangerous with the strong winds and rocks, but it didn't take long for dinghies to start zipping all around the poor boat. Then the rain really started. Everybody was drenched, but the dinghies kept buzzing around as everybody worked together to help save the little boat.

They eventually managed to tow it off the rocks before too much damage was done and one by one the people returned to their boats. But Garth didn't come back. I got the binoculars out, expecting to see him collaborating with the leaders to take charge of the situation. I couldn't see him amongst the few people that were still tagging along in their dinghies. What had happened? Then the boat got a bit closer and he came into focus through the binocular lenses. He was sitting all the way out at the front of the boat on the pulpit, his legs dangling over the water as he pointed to where he thought they should anchor. Of course.

Then the heavens really opened up. It was as if each individual raindrop was seething with hate, it's sole purpose during it's short life to inflict pain on whatever it struck. And that raindrop had many, many friends with similiar life goals. It absolutely poured down.

Welcome to Panama!

We were desperate to get to shore after so long at sea, but we ended up trapped on the boat until the storm moved on. We were starving and there was nothing left to eat but baked beans and cassoulet (There will always be cassoulet due to an unfortunate provisioning mishap). I've decided I'm not going to eat baked beans ever, ever again. After 55 days, enough is enough!

Our first day on land was actually quite daunting. We managed to get to shore in the afternoon, after the storm had cleared up and a bit of order had been restored to the anchorage. We had to finish all the formalities that go along with checking into a new country, which was annoying. We were given a 72 hour visa upon arrival but we had to get a proper one before that time was up. And it was friday, so if we missed out on getting into town we might have been in trouble by Monday.

We caught a taxi to the immigration place, which was exciting. It's always fun being in a new place and taking in new surroundings. The taxi should have cost around $5, but the guy asked for $8 because we were obviously tourists and didn't know any better (a local would pay maybe $3). Then we didn't have the right change, and ended up having to pay $12 after the driver emptied his pockets in an attempt to change our $20. He didn't know what to do as we were leaving. He just sat there looking frightened and worried as we were getting out, holding the money in his hand and repeating something in spanish. We couldn't really do anything to make him feel better, because I can't say 'don't worry about it' or even 'it's okay' in Spanish. Whoops. At least he had a good day!

Then we wandered around the building trying to find immigration. We think the doorman might have told us it was on the wrong floor, but we can't speak the language and he was doing his best to help so I'm not pointing any fingers. I tried really hard to learn bits and pieces of Spanish during the passage, but the only thing that has stuck in my head is the chorus from the song 'Pretty fly for a white guy' by The Offspring. It goes 'onas does tres, quatro cinco cinco seis.' So I can count to six.

We eventually found the office, and immediately realised that we had forgotten to get photocopies of our papers. I just kind of thought it would sort itself out. No dice. They were not going to do anything without copies of our papers. And they couldn't tell us where to find a photocopier. Luckily I had my tablet with me, which has the cruising guide on it. So we wandered off through foreign streets in search of a photocopier, with no map and without the ability to ask for directions. Fast forward a few hours and we walked out of the Immigration office again, our new shiny visas in hand. Phew! That was all we really had on the 'to do' list aside from 'find food' and 'explore.' So off we went, in a much more relaxed state.

We jumped in a cab and made our way to Albrook Mall. The cruising guide had those two words listed over and over under where to find things, so that was where we were going. At least there would be food. I just had no idea how much.

Albrook Mall. Food court #2 out of 4. Carousels, trains and transfats, oh my!

The mall was absolutely mental. I started grinning the moment we walked in, and I couldn't stop for hours. There were people everywhere. There were shops everywhere. I felt like I had big round cartoon eyes as I took in everything around us. It was filled with American shops! The ones we always hear about on movies but had never actually seen. There was a Banana Republic, a Gap, and numerous other names that I was absolutely delighted to see purely because they were familiar. We also found Cinnabon! Garth bought a cinnamon roll immediately is now addicted for life. Over the course of the next hour we found four more seperate Cinnabons... they were absolutely everywhere. We eventually became so disoriented and hungry that when we ordered food I started drinking somebody else's drink because we were standing by the counter and the people at the fast food place were laying the orders out onto trays. Just because it was right in front of me didn't mean it was mine... I did get a free upgrade to a large drink though, because they just laughed and poured another one for the person I stole it from. Whoops!

Cinnabon. The love affair begins

We eventally settled on grilled subs after half an hour of wandering round the food court (which we later found out was one of four). Garth gave in and upgraded to a meal for his, and the chips were given a generous dressing of bacon bits and cheese whizz. I've figured out how Americans get so fat! Fries aren't bad enough on their own, apparantly you have to smother them in fake cheese and fake bacon. It was delicious though. I spent the rest of the evening running around, with this faint noise following behind me. I think it might have been something along the lines of 'No Neke! Stop! Calm down! Come back!' But I couldn't really hear above the sound of my excitement.

Fake cheese and bacon fries

Unfortunately I wore myself out before we got to the grocery store so I wasn't as excited about all the American food for sale as I could have been. Which was probably a good thing, because we didn't end up buying countless piles of potato chips and cheese whiz.

Exhausted after perusing the hardware store outside Albrook. Free popcorn and coffee though! Best. Hardware store. Ever.

Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore! (Though I guess we would find these in Kansas. Just not in NZ!)

So that was our first impression of Panama. We also managed to miss out on the cruisers happy hour at the pizza place near our anchorage. We thought everybody was just late because it had been raining, but it took us about three days to realise that our clocks were set to the wrong time. Panama had introduced daylight savings during our two months at sea, so our phones didn't realise what the real time was. That was awkward. With no Internet and nowhere to be at specific times we were just met with a series of events that were a bit strange. Shops closed for lunch at weird times and another store turned me away at the time they'd told me to come back. Without beimg able to speak Spanish, it took a while for it all to click.

Random buildings

The taxi ride in between Albrook Mall and the anchorage was a lot of fun. Well, it was a lot of fun the first time. The traffic was hardly moving for a good portion of the ride. There were people standing in the middle of the road trying to sell stuff to people in the traffic jam. They were running back and forth between cars, standing in the middle of the road and even jumping onto the buses with their wares. I think they were mostly selling things like snacks, but they were absolutely hilarious. I couldn't figure out if it was the kind of job that you would do if you were really poor or if they actually made a lot of money from it. In most places if somebody is trying to sell you chocolate bars or homemade chips off the side of the road, they're essentially begging. But these guys were exhausted from running back and forth between cars and it actually looked like they were doing really well. Which they should be because it seemed like a lot of work. And who doesn't want a chocolate bar when they're stuck in traffic!? I love the vibe here, it's really chaotic and chilled out all at the same time.

The Diablo buses really amuse me. They're all really crazy, with stickers and tassels and shark fins stuck all over them. Some are done up really well, and some just have a few stickers on the side. The drivers are notoriously mental, not really following the same route each time. They do their buses up with colours and crazy modifications and will go out of their way to get you where you want to go. That way when you have a good driver you recognise the bus and remember it, so you're more likely to get on the same one again instead of going with a different driver. A lot even have 'My name is xxx' printed on the front, giving each one it's own personality. Some of them are lit up like the sun at night and they make long bus or taxi rides more entertaining because there's always an interesting Diablo bus out the window. We opt to use the reliable, civilised, air conditioned buses instead of the Diablo ones though. At 25c per ride, they're not too shabby.

An unadorned Diablo

At night

So that's Panama. An eclectic, crazy mess of people, cars and city stuff. It's been a long, long time since we've been in a place where you could just go out and buy what you need when you need it. It's awesome.

Finally, I have pineapple again!

Xxx Monique


  1. Hey, what do you mean "an unfortunate provisioning mishap"?
    You wanted canned food to keep you fed and healthy for the traverse, cassoulet is a good choice! We (meg) worked hard to find it for you!
    (but yeah, i can imagine you're fed up with it; fake cheese fries sound far more appealing - if less healthy)

    1. Lol! Don't worry, the cassoulet was great! I just got carried away and bought an insane number of them, which means we still have a heap left over and no desire to eat them now that we're on shore. I think I even went back and bought more after you guys left, which is probably how we ended up with so many. The ratatouille and 7 legumes however are all gone, and were crazy good. I never would have thought to buy them and they definitely made a lot of our meals better, so thanks again Meg! I'm definitely sick of canned food after 55 days though - I never want to see baked beans again.